In elementary school I “learned” because I was convinced good grades defined me. In middle school I “learned” to make sure I was in honors classes for high school. In high school I “learned” to get into a good college. In college I “learned” to get a good job.
When will the treadmill stop? For many people, it never will.
Our school system and societal norms are breeding generations of people that go through the motions. We are raising children that are optimized to become “factory workers”. Loyal employees who can follow directions, show up every day, and not make too much of a fuss.
There is plenty of merit and value in having a job that can put food on the table even if you do not enjoy it. But a) we should be much more honest and up-front about this and b) is this actually what we want to optimize for as a society?
The school system is actually quite effective - it produces the outcomes which it was designed to optimize for. During the industrial revolution, we needed to educate as many loyal assembly line and factory workers as we could, so we created the modern day education system.
But now, we live in a very different world, and on the whole, this is no longer what we should be educating for.
If a missile hits the wrong target because the coordinates were entered incorrectly, would people say that the missile is broken or that there was human error? In the same way, the school system is not broken, it just has the wrong coordinates.
We continue to tinker with the mechanics of the school system without recognizing that our coordinates are typed in wrong. Nothing can save us from this reality.
In a world that is changing rapidly with increasingly complex and grand issues, we need people who can learn for themselves, who can solve problems with empathy, who can appreciate nuance, complexity, and competing ideas.
As an example - the suspension of nuance has become a large topic on Twitter. It seems that things are painted extremely black and white. You either agree with the line of a campaign or you are an outsider. Even worse, you can be cancelled.
How many times in school were we taught nuance? Every war seemed to have an aggressor and a victim. Perhaps we could have deeper conversations if we were taught the complex intricacies of historical events (many of these intricacies do not exist because victors write the history books, but alas I digress).
To improve educational outcomes, we first need to pick new coordinates. If I were to design a school system personally, I would optimize for the following:
- Goodwill for self and others
- Love of learning, powered by attitudes of curiosity and exploration
- Foundational values of honesty and generosity
- Ability to reason and think critically
Unfortunately, my faith for the ability of our government to effectively do this is close to zero. However, I am encouraged by the innovation in the private sector of education.
Many new companies such as Prisma, Primer, and Zip are trying to capture the interest of young people to help them love learning. Further, companies such as Lambda School and FlockJay are unbundling career training from typical education, recognizing the need for specific training for employment.
Still, we must recognize we are shaping people and minds, not just employees and inputs. I hope we teach our next generations how to be happy, how to be empathetic, generous, and honest.
Let’s give students the tools to be good people. That is the education I wish I had.